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Turnaround Title: 2017 UNC vs. 2019 Virginia

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Is it better to bounce back from heartbreak or humiliation? Question for the philosophers...

Gonzaga v North Carolina Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Jim Nantz: “And this year, the confetti will fall for North Carolina...they’re not gonna be denied this time!”

Also Jim Nantz: “And Virginia...with the ALL-TIME turnaround title!”

As Nantz said that last quote, with the streamers falling to the floor in Minneapolis, I thought to myself that it seemed like a good, albeit pre-packaged, Jim Nantz title line (My all-time favorite of course will be “There’s a new Dean in college basketball!”). That lasted about ten seconds until a text from my father, UNC Class of 1982, popped up on my phone:

Dad: “All-time turnaround title” huh? Us coming back after Nova!!!

Father and Son had quite the...I won’t call it debate...deliberation thereafter, and I think it’s best to pose the question to our readers and fellow Tar Heel lovers: Whose title truly was the ALL-TIME TURNAROUND TITLE?

First, let’s think about some other candidates. We won’t have to venture far: Tobacco Road has had some doozies.

The 2015 Duke Blue Devils aren’t a bad one: They lost to 14th-seeded Mercer the year before and came back to win it all. However, their one-and-done reset of Parker and Hood for Okafor, Winslow, and Jones pretty much disqualifies it; it’s not a true turnaround if new players are doing it. 1982 UNC had a good one, after losing the title game the year before, but that ‘82 was more like a “DEAN FINALLY WON” than a “Boy, now I don’t have to think about Isiah Thomas.” Duke’s 1991 title was a good one as well, avenging their 1990 blowout loss to UNLV by upsetting them the following year and then closing the deal...but they had been in the Final Four year after year and it was more another “get over the hump” win.

So we’re left with the ‘17 Tar Heels and the ‘19 Cavaliers. To measure the turnaround, we must first measure the heartache:

In 2018, Virginia bore the reputation of being disciplined, smart, defensive-minded team that was boring as hell and always choked in the NCAA Tournament. But they were also the best team in the nation. They came into the tourney 31-2, the #1 overall seed, and had just run riot over the ACC, winning a record 17 conference games, and then the conference tourney. Their only conference loss was on the road, in overtime, by one point. The Wahoos dispatched a very game UNC squad in the ACC Championship in Brooklyn. If you told anyone watching that game that this would be UVA’s final win of the year, they’d have had you committed.

However, they also would have been prophetic: Virginia lost by TWENTY to 16-seed UMBC, the single most shocking defeat in the history of March Madness. Exhibit A: Humiliation.

In 2016, the North Carolina Tar Heels had the feel of a mountaineer trying to summit Everest. Thanks to the ongoing investigation into the AFAM Department and its connection to the basketball program, the team, its seniors in particular, had been forced to deal with the threat of sanctions, suspensions, and insults from everyone who wished the Tar Heels ill (which turned out to be quite a lot). On top of that, Duke had just won the 2015 title, they had failed to pass the Elite Eight or win a conference tournament since 2009, and there was the perception that they couldn’t compete on the recruiting trail.

But then the Tar Heels won in Cameron and clinched the ACC Regular Season title. Then they beat Virginia and took the ACC Tournament. Then they marched through the first five games of the NCAAs and reached the title game. Then they clawed their way back from 10 down against Villanova. Let’s be honest: When Marcus Paige hit THAT SHOT, was there a single one of us who didn’t think it was meant to be?

Then...the gut punch. Exhibit B: Heartbreak

But then came the bounce-back for both devastated squads. The 2017 Tar Heels formed a text thread called “Redemption.” The 2019 Cavaliers learned to keep cool heads under pressure. Sure, for some there would be no redemption: Marcus, Brice, and Joel James would not get another shot, nor would Isaiah Wilkins and Devon Hall. But for so many others, that one-year difference was everything:

Isaiah Hicks, who was one of the players responsible for allowing Kris Jenkins to hit the game-winner, had a terrific title game against Gonzaga and hit the key shot to go up three.

Justin Jackson, who was largely ineffective against Nova and was a target of their trash talk at one point, made two huge baskets in the final minutes, one of which was the game-sealing dunk.

Kennedy Meeks, who was atrocious in the 2016 title game, played brilliant defense all night against Gonzaga and made the pivotal block and steal to break the Bulldogs at the end.

De’Andre Hunter, whose injury kept him out of the loss to UMBC in 2018, had a career-high 27 points in the title game against Texas Tech.

Kyle Guy, who played well offensively against UMBC but couldn’t stop Jairus Lyles to save his life, scored 24 in the title game and, thanks to his three cold-blooded free throws against Auburn, won Most Outstanding Player.

UNC, unable to halt hot-shooting Villanova in 2016, grinded out a gritty win over Gonzaga with arguably their best defensive performance ever in a title game. UVA, the perennial chokers, won their last three games in the following manner:

  • In overtime, following a buzzer-beating shot
  • By one point, after three made free throws with 0.6 remaining
  • In overtime again, after a game-tying three with 12 seconds left.

So, who had the ultimate turnaround? Take your pick. It’s as subjective a question as you can find, but both of them are pretty darn amazing.